HISTORY IN A KIMONO BUTTON

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 28.01.11
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The Hare with Amber Eyes: A hidden Inheritance By Edmund de Waal, Chatto & Windus, Rs 950

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a netsuke is “a carved button-like ornament formerly worn in Japan to suspend articles from the sash of a kimono”. The title of this poignant and unforgettable book is the description of one netsuke.

On the surface, this is the story of a collection of 264 netsuke that travelled within a family from late 19th-century Paris to the author’s home in London. But as Edmund de Waal writes, “You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.’’

The collection’s journey reveals the history of Europe and the history of a family. The netsuke lying silent within a vitrine — a glass display case — are the only survivals of a magnificent art collection of a very wealthy Jewish family of bankers with business interests stretching from Odessa to St Petersburg to Vienna, Paris and London. They are witnesses to a loss, to a passing of a gracious and opulent way of life that fell victim to the ravages of barbarism.

Edmund de Waal received the collection from his grand uncle, Ignace Ephrussi, who lived in Tokyo after World War II and died there in 1994. The Ephrussi family were Jews originally from Odessa and had made their fortune in the grain trade in the early 19th century. Members of the family had then moved on to banking and vastly enhanced their wealth. The European branches of the family lived in splendour in Paris and Vienna.

It was in Paris that Charles Ephrussi made his name as a gentleman of fashion and an art collector. He knew Proust, Renoir and Monet. It was he who built up the collection of netsuke at a time when Japanese objets d’ art became fashionable in the French capital.

When his first cousin, Viktor, in Vienna, got married, Charles sent his netsuke collection as a wedding present. The vitrine containing the netsuke was placed in the dressing room of Viktor’s wife, Emmy, in Palais Ephrussi in Vienna. There the collection stayed, withstanding the dissolution of the Austrian Empire of the Hapsburgs till the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938.

The coming of the Nazis marked the end of the Ephrussi fortune. The storm troopers broke into their house in Vienna and destroyed the antique furniture and the beautiful furnishings. The mansion was taken over, the art collection and the library carted away, never to be seen again. Viktor and his son (the only one of his children living in Vienna then) were arrested and Emmy was pushed into a dingy room. But the netsuke collection was saved by the maid, Anna, who smuggled the pieces one by one to her room and hid them under her mattress.

After the war she handed the collection over to Viktor’s eldest daughter, Elisabeth, the author’s grandmother. Elisabeth gave the collection to her brother, Ignace, who in turn left it for his nephew, Edmund.

Through the story of the collection’s survival, the author depicts two different worlds: the discreet charm of the fashionable and the rich of Europe, and the growth of anti-Semitism and the violence that went with it. It is an account of a civilization and its devastation.

The delicately carved netsuke embody a precious art; the movement of the collection traces the nostalgia of objects and of belonging. These, when placed within a well-researched context, make for history, a history that is different and original. It is difficult to think of another book like this one.